Friday, February 26, 2016

Pope Francis, the Christian Life, and Social Justice

Pope Francis used his Vatican radio address from the Feb. 23 Mass to express his concern about the “fakeness” of so many Christians.  The Pope’s rebuke was harsh and was intended to cause Catholics and evangelicals to seriously reflect on the genuineness of their faith.  At least some listeners ought to be asking themselves, “What makes a ‘good Catholic’?” Or, “What does it mean to be a ‘real Christian’?”  As one of the Pope’s evangelical listeners, I am now reflecting on Pope Francis’ broadcast while also being aware of the “gulf” between the faith of my Catholic friends and that of evangelicals like myself.

Speaking from in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis said,

The Lord teaches us the way of doing: and how many times we find people – ourselves included – so often in the Church, who say, ‘Oh, we are very Catholic.’ ‘But what do you do?’ How many parents say they are Catholics, but never have time to talk to their children, to play with their children, to listen to their children.  Perhaps they have their parents in a nursing home, but always are busy and cannot go and visit them and so leave them there, abandoned. ‘But I am very Catholic: I belong to that association,’ [they say]. This is the religion of saying: I say it is so, but I do according to the ways of the world.

Pope Francis supported his challenge to the Catholic Church by referring to Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the Jewish leaders recorded in Matthew 23: 3-5.  Jesus encouraged his listeners to 

do all that they tell you to do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.  They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.  But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men…

In perhaps his sharpest rebuke, the Pope applies the teaching of Christ when he declares, “Being Christian means doing — doing God’s will.”  On judgment day, he said, “what will the Lord ask us?  Will he say to us: ‘What have you said about me?’ No!  He will ask about the things we have done.”

Although evangelical readers will likely agree that there is a theological “gulf” between evangelicalism and Catholicism, it is hard to ignore Pope Francis’ solid Scripture-based rebuke—one that recognizes the authority of Scripture and that attempts to define the “true Christian.”   The Apostle James gives us his definition of the genuine, saving, Christian faith (emphasis mine):

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.   – James 2: 14-17

From my perspective, Pope Francis has chosen a humble, uncluttered lifestyle and has a compassionate commitment toward the poor and needy of the world.  Therefore, unlike the Jewish Pharisees, the Pope has a legitimate right to challenge Christians to put their profession of faith into works that benefit others—family, neighbor, and all of those within their ability to assist.

Readers who are familiar with Pope Francis’ past homilies, encyclicals (letters on Catholic doctrine), and actions that promote social justice for the poor and the disenfranchised will notice the connection between the “faith that shows through works” and the Pope’s emphasis on social justice.  It is here that I believe both Catholics and evangelicals should be asking about the role of “good works” and “justice” in God’s plan of salvation.  I say this while emphasizing that whether or not my Catholic friends, or evangelical friends for that matter, have been saved is for God to Judge.  But at the same time, if the Bible is God’s revelation of the way to salvation by faith in Christ, and if Christ has commissioned believers to be His evangelists (evangel = “give the Good News,” the Gospel) (Matthew 28: 19-20), then it is essential that Christians know how to use the Bible to “point the way” to saving faith in Christ.

Thankfully, there are several fundamental core beliefs that evangelicals and Catholics share, including respect for the authority of Scripture and the claim to basic faith and trust in Christ as Savior as expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.  Out of these common beliefs, evangelicals and Catholics now stand side by side to defend biblical marriage and the sanctity of human life.  However, as Albert Mohler writes in “Standing Together, Standing Apart: Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise,” (Touchstone Magazine, July-August, 2003), “Evangelicals, Catholics, and the Orthodox do not share a common understanding of how the work of Christ accomplishes our salvation—and this is the heart of the gospel.”

It is beyond my theological knowledge and beyond the scope of this article to go into detail concerning the differences between evangelical and Catholic theology.  I refer the reader to Mohler’s article for an excellent discussion of these differences.  Suffice it to say here that evangelicals have historically recognized Christ alone as the Head of the Church (Colossians 1: 18).  And, salvation is through faith alone by grace alone through Christ alone (Galatians 3: 6-11; Ephesians 2: 8-9).  Although the sacraments of baptism and communion are important in the life of both the evangelical and the Catholic Church, they are not recognized as saving acts by evangelicals no matter in what church they are offered.

Having recognized key theological differences between evangelicalism and Catholicism, we can now revisit Pope Francis’ challenge to Christians to “prove their faith by their good works.”  On the surface, it appears that both the Pope and the Apostle James would agree…faith, if it has no works, is dead (James 2: 17).  But, the Scriptural view of the role of faith in salvation taught in the Book of James and elsewhere reveals that salvation is not merited by any works of the sinner.  Salvation is granted through saving faith alone which merits God’s grace alone through Christ alone

Every unsaved sinner on the way to eternal judgment is regarded as dead spiritually (Ephesians 2:1) and considered darkness (Ephesians 5: 8) and an enemy of God (Romans 5: 10).  This fact is very clear, and can be very unsettling!  Corpses cannot partake in holy sacraments.  Nor can the spiritually dead perform any good works.  Until salvation of the sinner by faith and God’s grace alone, each person is like a spiritual zombie.  But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) (Ephesians 2: 4-5). While we were still sinners, (and enemies), Christ died for us (Romans 5: 8, 10), and He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures (James 1: 18).
Demonstrating faith in God's love and mercy

Christians are saved by faith alone, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy…(Titus 3: 5).  What then is God’s purpose for good works?  Once again, just as evangelicals differ from Catholics in our understanding of saving faith, so also we differ in understanding of the purpose of good works.  Both James and the Apostle Paul would disagree with Pope Francis regarding both the nature of good works and God’s intention for good works. 

James (James 2: 18-24) and Paul (Romans 4: 1-5) refer to the great patriarch of the faith, Abraham, to teach the intertwining roles of saving faith and good works.  Abraham’s saving faith was pleasing to God because Abraham was obediently willing to complete the good work of sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22).  And, the “work” that Abraham did as he bound Isaac on the sacrificial altar and prepared to plunge the knife was regarded as a “work of faith” because Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead (Genesis 22: 5).  His faith was focused on God’s mercy, power, and grace alone.

From Abraham, we learn that works acceptable to God must be performed in faith and out of love for God, not primarily out of a perceived human need.  Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13 that any work we do is worthless if it is not performed out of unconditional love for His Son, Jesus Christ.  Oswald Chambers says, “If we are devoted to the cause of humanity, we shall soon be crushed and broken-hearted for we shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we would from a dog…”  Instead, our works must be motivated from what Christ did for us.  Paul wrote, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor… (2 Corinthians 8: 9). 

The Scripture reveals an unexpected benefit to us when our works are Christ-love-motivated.  Speaking of the generous giving of the church in Macedonia, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 8, …their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality (v. 2) and, …they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God (v. 5).

Pope Francis is right to challenge Christians to do good works, but our works must have a Christ-love motivation and a Christ’s-kingdom trajectory.  Although Jesus sees the needs of the downcast, His aim is not an end in itself to meet physical needs, redistribute wealth, and bring social justice.  Instead, Jesus wants our good works to be the means God uses to bring others into His kingdom, the “city of God,” not an “earthly city.”  Hebrews 11: 10 records that Abraham was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  In 1 Corinthians 2: 11 we learn that the foundation of this “city” must be Christ, For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The “kingdom builders” God desires are first of all saved by faith alone, motivated by Christ’s saving grace alone.  Then, as redeemed children of God, they do good works, directed by a focus upon God’s “kingdom ends”i.e. the reconciliation of our neighbor with God which can be facilitated through the means of generous works in the Name of Christ. 

According to Oswald Chambers, “Jesus Christ out-socialists the socialists.” Bernie Sanders not withstanding, no socialist leader has ever been able to control human values, wants, and aspirations to produce a Utopian state. History records failed attempts that have ended in godless misery and the deaths of millions.  Christ demonstrated that the way up is down.  He came to become the Servant of all, stooping to serve even the poorest.  Toward the end of Matthew 23, the passage used by Pope Francis in his radio broadcast, Jesus is quoted as saying, But the greatest among you shall be your servant (v. 11).  Jesus indeed came to bring “social justice” but not for an earthly, economic kingdom.  He calls His followers not merely to eradicate “income inequality” or to join with those who stir up envy and guilt toward the rich.  Instead, Jesus, the Head of the Church, is building His kingdom with a very different approach:  If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me (Luke 9: 23). 

Pope Francis’ challenge to authentic Christianity invites us to take stock of our own faith.  What words will I hear from Jesus Christ when my life is judged?  It will either be, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME’ (Matthew 7: 23); or, 'Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25: 21).  Out of compassion for all humans, rich and poor, Jesus calls His redeemed followers who hear Him because they too are poor in our spirit (Matthew 5: 3).  We are to emulate Him in becoming what Oswald Chambers describes as “broken bread and poured out wine in the hands of Jesus for others.”  Chambers adds, “When we realize that Jesus Christ has served us to the end of our meanness, our selfishness, and sin, nothing that we meet with from others can exhaust our determination to serve men for His sake.”

How About You? 
Thank you for reading.  I’d be honored to hear from you, particularly if you have a question or if you disagree with anything I’ve written.

Has God provided you with opportunities to share unconditional love in deeds and in words toward another person who may not be able to give you anything of benefit in return except a “Thank You?”

Friday, February 19, 2016

Nature Speaks to Us, “Choose Life!”

Two of the most amazing relationships on Earth are sexual reproduction and the subsequent maternal nurturing of offspring.  Both processes involve complex coordination of form and function in both animals and seed plants.  To date, evolutionary biologists have been unable to provide a plausible explanation for the origin of sexual reproduction by time, chance, and random mutations.

Human sexuality is unique according to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures because it has both moral and biological significance. Moral commitment to marriage and responsible parenting within the family unit determine the character of each subsequent generation.  Indeed, many scholars argue that human civilizations have risen and fallen in accordance with their respect for the institutions of heterosexual marriage and family.

Shortly after conception, the developing embryo begins
sending a hormonal message as if to say, "I'm here mom."
Today, the foundation of heterosexual marriage and the family is being undermined by a growing disregard for the moral teachings of the Bible.  Our pluralistic society has increasingly viewed Christianity as only one  among many “religions” from which to choose.  Moral relativism has made it very easy for traditional marriage and family to become marginalized.  As a result, some scholars have pointed to the order and purpose within the natural world as a basis for establishing moral and ethical values and human choices apart from “religion” per se.  For example, the fruitfulness of the host of different species of vertebrate animals owes its success generally to the faithful nurturing of offspring by the parent generation.  Those who know this fact, regardless on their “religion,” conclude there is something inherently very wrong with wanton abuse or killing of animals or their young.

Natural law ethics is based on the belief that by observing the order, harmony, and beauty in nature, we can intuitively reason that we have a moral and ethical obligation to respond properly to it.  It follows that senseless abuse or killing of an animal or human being is a moral and ethical violation of natural law because such acts disrupt a purposeful, forward progression in nature.

In a previous Oikonomia, entitled Stewardship of Creation and “Natural Law” we emphasized that natural law ethics are consistent with what we learn in Genesis when it claims that there is order and purpose in the natural world, and that mankind is both capable and responsible for discerning this order and purpose.  There we also affirmed that application of natural law ethics can inform the biblical mandate for stewardship of God's creation (Genesis 2: 15) through transformation of our character. The steward who takes time to discern the order and purpose in nature (creation) will strive to learn more about her surroundings and how her actions will influence that order and purposeful progression.  Therefore, we believe that a robust environmental stewardship ethic can arise from a merger of natural law ethics and Judeo-Christian ethics.

Like Genesis 1-2, Romans 1: 16-22 emphasizes mankind's responsibility as stewards of God's truth and righteousness (v. 16-18).  Here, we also learn that God has given us the ability to know Him personally (v. 19), to understand and be in awe of His great power in creation (v. 20), and to live with thankfulness and reverence toward Him (v. 21).  Instead, mankind suppressed the truth revealed through the order and unity of creation (v. 18) and followed futile speculations and false reasoning (v. 21-22).   This suppression of truth describes the actions of those who, in spite of the evidence of order and purpose in creation and what their conscience tells them, choose to defy and act contrary to both natural law and God’s divine revelation in Scripture.  In other words, mankind’s rebellion is demonstrated by his rejection of “two books of revelation”—the natural revelation and the divine revelation in Scripture.

Most agree that the divine revelation in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures clearly supports laws against murder.  But, even apart from the biblical teaching, we see that natural law ethics provide a strong moral argument against murder. Murder brings a crashing halt to the intricate order of life processes in the human body and smashes the purposes, hopes, and dreams of a precious, living being.  Unless his sensibility, reason, and conscience are seared, mankind's reaction to senseless killing of human and animal alike is to feel deeply the wrongness of it. Because of an innate sense of right and wrong, the one who kills needlessly may live in misery and regret even without knowledge of the Bible's command, "Thou shall not murder (Matthew 5: 21-22)."

Today, slightly more than half of Americans polled oppose the practice of abortion under most or all circumstances.  Opponents of the pro-life position argue that abortion is not murder because human life does not begin until some point in late-term or at birth. However, this argument is strongly opposed on the basis of natural law ethics.  Here, one can argue that it is wrong to interrupt the orderly and purposeful progression of human development which normally advances in a seamless fashion from fertilized ovum to a fully formed human in the mother’s womb.  There is literally no identifiable stage in human development other than conception to mark as the beginning of an individual human life.

Those who accuse pro-lifers of causing the guilt and misery in women who have chosen abortion often want to silence Christians and their moral stand.  But, if it is true that natural law ethics provides a strong case against abortion, then emotional and physical consequences may be expected even if Christianity could be erased from our culture.  In support of this notion, recent scientific findings are uncovering more subtle and unexpected consequences of the abuse of the natural order of human reproduction.

First, there is growing evidence that abortion tends to diminish and even jeopardize the life of the mother.  Lynn Vincent in “The Mourning After” (WORLD Magazine, April 14, 2007),  refers to U.S. House Bill RH 1457, the Post-Abortion Depression Research and Care Act of 2007 which cites evidence of "severe and long-term effects" of abortion on women, including depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts, intense grief, emotional numbness, rage, sexual dysfunction, and relationship difficulties.”  Another study reports similar emotional disruptions in the fathers of aborted children.

Those who blame the emotional consequences of abortion on pro-lifers who create a moral stigma against abortion cannot be totally disregarded.  After all, history reveals that voices of moral opposition have in at least some instances served to keep cultures from drifting into immoral practices.   However, scientific research from Scandinavia where there is even less social opposition to abortion than in America nonetheless reports that the suicide rate is 40 percent higher in the first year after an abortion (WORLD, July 19, 2016).  There are both emotional and biological consequences to interrupting the natural progression of human development.  Commenting on the same study, Dr. Camilla Hersh, American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, adds “For every abortion a woman has, her risk of having a premature baby goes up 30 percent. It’s 30 percent higher with the first one, 60 percent with the second.” 

What is the take-home message of these statistics?  It seems that when human development within the woman’s body is interrupted with an abortion, we encounter consequences that are deeply rooted in the natural order, design, and purposes for sexuality and reproduction in the female body.  When these processes are thwarted in their purpose, the consequences play out in the form of not only emotional imbalances but also biological disruptions as expressed in the tendency of premature births.  As ethically wrong as it is to take the life of an unborn child, we must also consider the apparently unavoidable biological consequences produced in the mother.  But first, I want to address some words of comfort and admonition to those who have chosen to abort a child.

Readers who have chosen to abort one or more unborn children may be experiencing emotional or biological effects right now.  If so, I do not want to add to your grief.  Nor do I want to treat you as a statistic.  Although I believe abortion is a violation of both natural law and divinely revealed moral law, there is comfort and forgiveness to be found in God’s mercy as revealed in the Bible.  I pray that you will read Psalm 139 and pursue God to find His answer for bondage to sin and guilt.  Christ will cleanse even your conscience from sin (Hebrews 9: 11-14) as you surrender to Him. Then you will recognize your sin as the cause of your anguish, and stop blaming Christians and their "moral hangups" for your guilt and unrest.  I would encourage you to visit Oikonomia, August 30, 2015.  Near the end of that article, start reading with How About It?  where you will find an invitation to consider the “Good News” (Gospel) of Christ.  There is also a link to a helpful outline, called “What Are the Four Spiritual Laws?” This resource presents the Gospel and invites you to consider the salvation and forgiveness of Christ that is available to all of us sinners.  You are also welcome to e-mail me if you have particular questions (

Scientists are discovering a "beautiful cooperation" between
mother and the unborn child that lasts long after birth.
We have seen that interruption of the natural order of human sexual reproduction by abortion can have serious negative effects.  But, on a more positive note, science is discovering even more evidence of amazing benefits to mothers who “choose life” and do not disrupt the natural order of the processes of prenatal development.  Rheumatologist J. Lee Nelson, of the University of Washington, speaking to NPR Radio, explained findings from her laboratory that an unborn baby’s cells can move through the placenta and into the mother’s bloodstream where they can enter her heart, brain, liver, and other organs.  These cells can act like stem cells and transform into other cell types that can form collagen, participate in wound healing, and even reduce the risk the mother will develop cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.  The mother’s cells, including cells from previous pregnancies, can also cross through the placenta and into her baby, thus providing a biological linkage among siblings.  Dr. Nelson calls it “a beautiful cooperation” between a mother and her unborn child.

I close with two points for your consideration.  First, even if one doesn’t recognize the authority of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures that defend the sanctity of human life, there is reason to consider the claims of natural law ethics.  Natural law ethics offer a robust defense of sanctity of human life and this ethic is strengthened as science continues to reveal the marvelous array of intricate relationships involved in prenatal human development. By providing both disincentives and incentives, nature  apart from the Bible calls out to us, "Choose Life!"

Second, we should take more seriously every aspect of our stewardship of the natural world.  The notion of “natural law” should humble us to realize our part in an amazing order of creation which speaks of order, design, and purpose.  We should avoid actions that thwart obvious purposes at work in nature, especially to needlessly jeopardize our own life or the life of another human or creature.  However, natural law ethics alone cannot inform us of the Great Cause of the order and design of creation.  Only the divine revelation of Scriptures can explain our moral depravity and our need for salvation through faith in Christ Who died as our atoning sacrifice (e.g. John 3: 16).  Creation displays an order, pattern, and purpose that points to God as Creator.  And this is the Creator Who is affirmed in the divine revelation of Scripture as the God Whose invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1: 20).   

God is forever seeking to speak Himself out to His creation. The whole Bible supports the idea. God is speaking. Not God spoke, but God is speaking. He is by His nature continuously articulate. He fills the world with His speaking Voice.  (From:  A.W. Tozer,  “The Speaking Voice”, in The Pursuit of God (Regal)

How About You?

Are you sensitive to God speaking to you as you observe the "book of nature" with its display of the order and purpose of life all around you?  Do you also sense God's invitation for you to consider the "book of His inspired Word," the Bible, which assures you of His love and victorious life when you seek out and follow His plan and purposes?   Want to share your thoughts or a question?   I’d love to hear from you.  Just use the “Comment” box below.